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Queen Casey Defeating Death
I left the doctor’s office with no illusions. I had always been very aware of my mortality. So aware, in fact, that when I was seven I had thrown tantrums, full-fledged fits that swept through the peeling house like hurricanes, rather than leave my little room in the mornings.
“I’m gonna die!” I would shriek, “I’m gonna get hit by a car! I’m gonna fall off a cliff!”
My mom, who had little patience for kids and no tact, had never really denied my imminent demise. “There are no cliffs at preschool,” she comforted me one day. “At least then it would be quiet around here!” she shouted the next, clutching her head and a bottle of Advil.
It was Casey who finally snapped me out of it. She was older than me; a foot and two years separated us, as well as a whole social class which I became aware of years later. I was sobbing on the playground one Wednesday after my mom had pried me off of her second-hand purse.
“Good luck,” she told the duty teacher, and hurried away. I scrambled to the safest place I could find-the plastic tunnel on the jungle gym- and stubbornly proceeded to scream. Casey had heard me from the legendary “Big Kid’s Playground” and leapt the miniature fence to come see who was being murdered in the tunnel.
“Achh, wot’s this, then?” she asked in a terrible Scottish accent. “A wee lad cryin’ in th’… in th’…” She sighed and shook her head, then turned and grinned at me. It was an amazing grin, it grew in her eyes and shone there, as bright and invigorating as moon light. Her mouth twitched, then surrendered to her amusement and spread into an adorable smile. I stared at her, my terror forgotten, fascinated by this wiry second grader.
“What’s wrong, kid?” She squeezed into the tunnel and sat beside me, her faded jeans propped against the orange plastic.
I sniffed, trying to remember those fears which, a moment ago, had been so solid and inescapable. “Well, it‘s just that…I‘m afraid of dying!” She raised an eyebrow. I squirmed, uncomfortable with her scrutiny.
“Well of course you are!” She exclaimed. “So am I! So is that guy, and her, and Ms. Bloomfield!” Her pale hand swung crazily towards plump kindergarten teacher, who was chasing a rampant charge around the monkey bars. “Everybody dies, squirt. But who cares?”
She scooted out onto the jungle gym’s plastic stairs and stood regally. “We are going to cast ourselves down yon slide. And we are going to have a royal blast. We may perish, tis’ true, but,” she sighed theatrically and placed a delicate hand on her forehead, “we shall live on in the hearts of our peers. Besides, it will be fun.”
In the following years Casey had become my best friend, my big sister, and my imagination.
“Just think, Riley,” she would say, pointing at a cloud that, for her, had transformed itself into a castle or a grasshopper, but to me remained a cloud. “Just think how great it would be to live up there.”
Casey had chased death away back then, so now it was Casey who I needed to see.
I coaxed my phone out of the pocket of my skinny jeans. The words of the text message flashed and grew as quickly as the expression on Dr. Bremin’s face. Meet me at home. I pushed send, releasing the message into the heavens, dooming it to come crashing back down again. Message was sent successfully.
I took the bus to Reese Park. It was just a few blocks away; usually I enjoyed such short walks. I also enjoyed clinking the 75 cents that I didn’t spend into the jar Casey kept by her bed. The jar was part of the vigorous plan Casey had concocted to help me save for college. I had laughed when she suggested it.
“Really, Case, what good are a couple of quarters?”
“Now good at all, Riley. But we will have more than a couple.”
She was right. We had filled the jar three times in the last year, and altogether it had yielded $73. 27. Not enough for college, not by a long shot, but she was proud of it just the same.
The bus was silent and stuffy, the broken windows refused to release any of the cacophony of smells that clung to the empty seats. Dr. Bremin’s words drained my strength; three quarters hardly mattered now. College was more of a dream than ever.
Casey was waiting for me at the park, our adoptive home. She sat on the patched yellow sod, leaning against the familiar graffiti of our favorite bench. She glanced up at me as I plopped down next to her. “Hey, big guy.” I had shot up in the last year, and my curly mop bobbed a level above her chaotic ponytail.
“Hey.” The greeting emerged heavy and harsh. Casey’s head swiveled, she frowned and examined my grim face. One word and already I was messing this up.
I cleared my throat, searching for a way to break the news. How do you say something like this casually? “By the way, Case, I won’t be around much longer, I have a disease. But, no biggie, you know. Don’t feel like you have to speak at my funeral or anything. Just plop me in the ground and sing a few lines of Amazing Grace…” The image of Casey, who’s earbuds blared Purple Rain, singing bible hymns in a crowd of my stiff-necked family popped the hysterical bubble that had built in my chest.
“Phaw haw haw!” The laughter knocked me over; I rolled on the grass at Casey’s feet, spittle flying. “Hehehehe, haw haw!”
Casey stared down at me, her mouth twitching treacherously. “It’s not funny, Ri.” Her eyes were scared above her nervous grin. She’s worried about me, I thought. She’d better get used to it.
The hysterics faded. I sat up, clasped my hands in my lap. They are interesting, hands. So easy to forget, but so necessary and amazing. I turned mine over, rubbed the sole of my thumb over the tender new calluses. “Case-” How to say it? “Casey I- I need to tell you…”
“You saw the doctor today, didn’t you? About that…thing.” I nodded, my eyes squeezed shut. My heart screamed; I took a deep breath, trying to squash the fear with the smell of the Eucalyptus trees. “What did she say? Riley?” Her hand, small and rough, slipped into mine and pulled it to her leg. “What did she say?”
A hot tear squeezed its way onto my cheek. “She said-.” I sobbed, she pulled my head down to her lap. “She said I- the odds- I can’t…”
“Right, squirt. I got it.” She tugged at my curls, her strong hands trembling. A few yards away a group of ten year olds were scratching a hop-scotch board into the dirt. She laughed, and the sound made me wince. It was thick, the kind of laugh that just gave away how much she wanted to cry.
“Remember when I taught you that game?” I turned over and looked up at her.
“Yeah. I remember. How could I forget?”
She laughed again, more lightly now, letting the memory of my clumsiness overwhelm her. “You couldn’t even draw the board!” She tapped my nose, teasing, “You kept breaking the chalk!”
“And you finally told me that every piece of chalk I killed would haunt me forever, bringing all sorts of bad luck on me and my family for generations to come.” I laughed, shaking my head incredulously. “I must have broken more pieces than I thought.”
“Don’t be silly, Ri. The Ghostly Chalk wore out it’s curses in your geometry class freshman year.”
We grinned at each other. A stray breeze teased her bangs from behind her ear. I reached up to tuck them back. “I just wish….”
“What is it, Ri?” She laughed grimly. “I could probably get it for you. I have,” she wiggled her fingers in front of her, her eyes closed mystically, “connections.”
“Oh, Queen Casey, you magical fool.”
“Seriously, though, Riley. My dad is, like, seriously rich.” She looked up, watching the hop-scotch game again. “He would do just about anything for me right now, if he thought it might get me to come back.”
“No, Case, it’s nothing like that.” I twirled her bangs on my finger; the little hairs catching on the rough skin. “I was just thinking about when we met. Wouldn’t it be great to -to die- doing something fun? Having a blast? Going down one huge, amazing slide, you know?”
She dialed an imaginary phone. “One giant slide coming right up.”
“I just wish I had gotten to do more.” We watched one of the third graders leap across the board, almost invisible now, it’s lines scuffed out.
“What,” Casey pouted, attempting puppy dog eyes, “this isn’t good enough for you?”
I reached down and clasped her hand. Casey’s warm lap and the cool grass, both achingly familiar, cradled me. The familiar California breeze kissed my cheek, then flitted up to steal the sweet scent of Eucalyptus from the trees. A peal of laughter drifted over from the hopscotch game. I looked up at my best friend. I could pin-point where her dimples would pop up when she laughed. I knew just how she scrunched up her freckled nose when she was puzzled. And those incredible blue eyes…I was one of the few people in the world who had seen them cry.
But not today. They wouldn’t cry today. “Actually, Case, this is perfect.” Her eyes grinned, and, for the moment, my fear fled. “I don’t need anything else. This is perfect.”